Listening together, listening alone: A music professor sounds off on his shifting industries
Brian Fauteux reflects on the way COVID-19 is affecting his two passions: music and teaching
Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.
A lot of great songs effectively reflect the feelings that accompany isolation. The experience of being alone, however, is often constructed in opposition to a longing for togetherness. Heart's "Alone" (1987) — maybe the greatest power ballad ever recorded — confidently asserts, "'Til now I always got by on my own." But this is no longer the case when the song's protagonist meets and develops undeniable feelings for another: "And now it chills me to the bone." In another iconic 80s anthem, "Dancing in the Dark," Springsteen grows tired and bored with himself against the desperate urge to join up with "something happening somewhere." The act of dancing in the dark can be fun, sure, but it's much more fun with others. Inspiration in isolation is insubstantial.
I'm an Assistant Professor of Popular Music and Media Studies, and I teach and write about the role of music in society. I'm interested in how our listening practices shape, and are shaped by, issues of sustainability in the music industries — that is, how artists make (or struggle to make) a living in this day and age.
The live music industry has taken a catastrophic hit over the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as have the livelihoods of artists who rely on tours and live performances for income and exposure. Part of this problem is that the payout from streaming services, our dominant mode of listening today, is insufficient on its own. Music's more social and physical qualities have been hampered as venues have closed and audiences have been confined to their homes.
Growing up I often listened to music alone, as I'm sure many of us do. I still recall the summer months between elementary and high school — a time marked by isolation as I faded out of one friend group and hoped to soon find another. I would pass the time within quick reach of the radio, equipped with a cassette tape in the deck, ready to hit record upon hearing a song I was eager to commit to tape. Radio waves beamed into my suburban hometown from the greater metropolis of Toronto. In sonic solitude, I accumulated tapes of songs gleaned from campus stations and commercial rock radio. And as I developed a growing interest in music, I had a desire to share it with others. In high school, friendships were made and organized around a shared taste in music. We formed bands and our weekends revolved around shows at bowling alleys, skateparks, youth centres, and community halls. Music facilitated an expanding social circle.
Music comes alive when we hear and make sense of it. We relate songs to our own experiences and subjectivities. From radio DJs to friends and family members, people introduce and contextualize music for us. Bodies shape the sonic space; sounds in a sparse room are much different than in one packed with people.
Statistics indicate that "comfort classics" have dominated recent listening habits. On Twitter, scores of people came forward to share the bands that soundtracked their high school years; I found it surreal to see Smashing Pumpkins, Linkin Park, and Our Lady Peace as simultaneous trending topics. It's safe to say that many folks have found comfort in music from the past. Personally, I've had the radio on 24/7. I like to hear not only music but a voice entering the home from elsewhere. With someone on the other end, I feel connected and hopeful. If I were to be met with static or dead air, it would bring forth an overbearing sense of foreboding.
At the same time, I have found it difficult to connect with music in this new reality of staying indoors or walking the same pathways through one's neighbourhood, like a tape loop becoming weathered and worn with each passing rotation. We're familiar with the past. Songs have established connections with our prior experiences. But we don't know what the future sounds like.
What was novel about turn-of-the-century basement or bedroom pop/rock is the new normal. With the help of digital tools and the internet, songs emit from apartments and bedrooms and can be shared with listeners around the world. There are many advantages to this, of course. But music also thrives in public spaces and in music venues. It serves as a soundtrack to riding the bus to work or writing in a coffee shop.
I think of the move Broken Social Scene made in the early 2000s from atmospheric, ambient, lo-fi songs on Feel Good Lost (2001) to the expansive and rousing sound of You Forgot It In People (2002). A promotional sticker included with You Forgot It In People explained that, "The last record was constructed for lover's [sic] in bathrooms...this is for the one's [sic] who leave their homes looking for hope." This moment in the band's discography reflects a desire to embrace collectivity in music-making; to feed off the energy of others.
There are virtues in virtual concerts and performances, especially when it comes to environmental issues and overcoming the geographic distances and difficulties of touring in a vast country like Canada. I've enjoyed Neil Young's fireside sessions, hosted on his wildly overstimulating website. Seeing Metallica perform "Blackened" apart but together was kind of fun. Live-streamed DJ battles instigate real-time commentary and conversation on social media. But there is a lot of work still to be done if these online options are to be viable, equitable, and enjoyable for both listeners and artists, however temporary or permanent.
The same can be said for online teaching. Since mid-March, my university moved classes online, as did most higher education institutions in North America. It's been weird, to say the least, and when you factor in the accompanying financial woes and job losses facing universities and colleges across the world, it's been especially unnerving. Some teaching and learning activities can be done somewhat effectively online; we can deliver lectures and accept written assignments and exams with relative ease. But in many ways this move is an inadequate replacement for what takes place in the shared space of a classroom.
Teaching music requires the act of listening. It benefits from conversations and reflections about what we hear and how we make meaning from the songs that shape our everyday lives. Online, everyone's listening environment is unique. The sound of headphones and speakers differ from one device to another. In a subject like music, sound and environment is imperative to the overall learning experience. There are many things to consider if this is to be done right.
It's chilling to watch figures outside of education make claims about how to efficiently revolutionize higher education, often in the name of a sort of flawed techno-utopianism. At the same time, more compelling suggestions and strategies for reimagining and reasserting the vital role of educational institutions are beginning to surface, and we would be wise to listen.
A stubborn insistence on always moving forward often means not taking the time to reflect on what decisions mean more holistically. I believe that this moment is a good time to resist this trajectory and pause to think critically about how we might organize our post-isolation worlds. Especially within the realm of music or education, we need to listen to a wide range of actors, including (but not limited to) students, musicians, venue owners, and instructors when we make policy decisions that will shape the livelihoods of these individuals. It's time to remedy the power imbalances that leave many in unsustainable and precarious positions across higher education and the music industries.
The pandemic era has laid bare the fact that a robust public sector and public institutions are essential for our overall well-being and sustainability. I've been thinking a lot about my own investment in communities and in public culture; this includes music and art and everything that helps us to make sense of ourselves and our communities and our place in this world. The truth is that we can get by as individuals, but in our communities and as a society, we can bring forth something much greater together.
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